Combating IUU Fishing with Autonomous Vehicles

Week 4: Saildrone is demonstrating how USVs could be a cost-effective solution for monitoring illegal fishing activity in remote areas of the ocean.

A fishing vessel in the Bering Sea, as seen by a saildrone.

It’s estimated that, globally, one in five fish are caught by illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. IUU fishing accelerates the depletion of fish stocks, harms marine ecosystems, and results in tens of billions of lost revenue for legal fishermen each year. In the United States, the US Coast Guard is tasked with maintaining the safety and security of the maritime domain. Throughout the month of October, Saildrone is demonstrating how its platform could be used by the USCG to improve maritime domain awareness (MDA) and combat IUU fishing.

According to the US Coast Guard’s 2020 Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook, IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. Nearly half of the world’s population relies on fish for 20% of their protein, and global fish sales are over $400 billion annually. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that 93% of the world’s major marine fish stocks are classified as fully exploited, overexploited, or significantly depleted. IUU fishing removes access to this valuable source of nourishment and economic security, particularly to the most vulnerable coastal communities, and undermines the sustainable management of marine resources.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines IUU fishing as a) illegal fishing activities conducted outside applicable regional and international laws and regulations; b) activities that are not reported or misreported to relevant authorities; and c) occurs in areas or for fish stocks for which there are no applicable conservation or management measures, or by vessels without nationality or flying a flag of a nation or entity not part of any regional fisheries management organization.

Illegal fishing is a worldwide issue and occurs both within countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and in international waters. IUU “hot spots” shift depending on fish stocks and regional enforcement policies, and it is particularly difficult to enforce because of the vastness of the global ocean. The USCG is examining the feasibility, costs, and benefits of using autonomous platforms to improve MDA, including IUU fishing, in remote areas of the ocean. 

The Saildrone MDA solution consists of an autonomous wind and solar-powered vehicle equipped with a specially built 360° camera system integrated with a GPU, automated identification system (AIS) receivers, and optional radar or infrared cameras for night-time capabilities. The cameras capture images on a very high frequency and onboard AI/ML software fuses the data from all sensors, recognizes and identifies targets of interest, and automatically alerts the end-user in real time. Saildrones are designed to operate for up to 12 months in the harshest ocean conditions.

Saildrone is one of two uncrewed surface vehicle (USV) systems currently being tested off the coast of Hawaii. A fleet of six saildrones is demonstrating how different formations of USVs could be used to patrol IUU fishing activity and collect critical meteorological and oceanographic data for environmental monitoring, as well as shipping lane surveillance and large-area search and rescue. 

Global Fishing Watch uses a combination of publicly available AIS data and satellite imagery to expose areas of illegal fishing activity; these “dark targets”—vessels not broadcasting AIS—could be visually detected by strategically stationed Saildrone fleets.

The US Coast Guard, NOAA, and many international governmental and non-governmental organizations are working together to eliminate IUU fishing. Overall, more transparency and continued public-private partnerships that leverage cutting-edge technology are needed to solve this global problem.

Read more: Saildrone Begins Demo of Autonomous MDA Capabilities for USCG

AI/ML Will Automate Maritime Domain Awareness

The United States Coast Guard and the Role of Autonomy at Sea


David J. Agnew, John Pearce, et al., “Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing,” PLOS ONE, 4(2): e4570, February 25, 2009 

Kara Noto, “Coast Guard Announces Outlook to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing,” My Coast Guard News, September 18, 2020

Seapower Staff, “USCG Releases New Plan to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing,” Seapower Magazine, September 17, 2020

NOAA Fisheries, “Understanding Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing,”, accessed October 30, 2020

United States Coast Guard, “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Strategic Outlook,” accessed October 30, 2020

Never Miss an Update

Stay informed with the latest research findings and updates.

By clicking Sign Up you're confirming that you agree with our Privacy Policy

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.